Documentary is an ode to NYC playground basketball

Monday - 5/20/2013, 12:24am EDT

JAKE COYLE
AP Entertainment Writer

NEW YORK (AP) -- Half-moon hoops, double rims, chain-linked fences for out-of-bounds lines and no net that anyone can recall.

Such is the imperfect urban landscape of playground basketball, what many consider the truest expression of the sport. It's basketball without referees, coaches or sneaker deals. Anyone can play, so long as they call "Next."

A new documentary, "Doin' it in the Park," is a loving ode to the blacktop world of New York City pickup. With more than 700 courts, it's the mecca of pick-up basketball, featuring places like Rucker Park in Harlem and the West 4th St. court, a kind of fish bowl of nonstop basketball on view for West Village commuters and tourists. Basketball is woven into the asphalt fabric of New York.

"Every court has a story," says "Doin' it in the Park" co-director Bobbito Garcia, who made the film with Kevin Couliau, a French photographer of outdoor basketball.

When Garcia was found on a recent sunny spring day at a Village court off Hudson Street, he was calmly knocking down shot after shot: "You take it, 'cause I won't miss," he says, offering the ball less with arrogance than matter-of-fact politeness.

Garcia, 46, is not your average documentarian. A New York native and former basketball pro in Puerto Rico, he's carved out a career as a DJ, as an author of a book on shoes, as a New York Knicks sideline reporter and through countless other basketball-promoting activities.

"I have no aspirations to make another film," he says. "It's not like I got enchanted by a subject and dove into it for two years to create a film and now I'm to my next project. This is it. I just want to play ball."

He and Couliau made "Doin' it in the Park" by visiting 180 courts across all five boroughs over the course of the 2010 summer. They often traveled between courts on bike, Couliau's backpack full of film equipment, Garcia's with just a basketball. Couliau crashed on Garcia's couch in Harlem.

They tried to capture the culture of New York basketball, one dented backboard at a time. Their urban odyssey took them from rough Coney Island courts (the point guard hotbed that produced Stephan Marbury and Sebastian Telfair) to the daily prisoner games of Rikers Island.

The movie is something of a cultural guide to the world of New York playground basketball (Garcia disdains the demeaning "street ball" name), cataloguing its courts, its legends, its local characters and its peculiar customs.

The film takes the viewer through the sometimes fraught process of getting into the most competitive runs; examines the fierce competitiveness that makes the playground an incubator of talent; and presents the peculiarities of the game "21," (in which three or more players play individually against each other).

Kenny Smith, the former NBA guard and current TNT analyst, recalls growing up on the courts in Queens. The day he made it into a game on "the big boy court" in his neighborhood as a 15-year-old, Smith says, remains his most cherished basketball memory. (He's a two-time NBA champion.)

Richard "Pee Wee" Kirkland, the Rucker Park legend and top scorer, calls pick-up "the essence of basketball," in the film.

"One time I played at Tompkins Square Park and there was a priest on the court, a woman who had played college ball, me, a Wall Street banker and two homeless dudes -- we didn't have enough," Garcia says. "Where are you going to find that mix of people engaged in a physical activity? It's not going to happen in the club where it's members only. It's not going to happen indoors. It's going to happen in the park. It's going to happen outdoors."

Often, the filmmakers would (not reluctantly) be pulled into the games they were filming.

"We weren't just witnesses," says Couliau, by phone from Paris. "We were also taking part of the movement on the playgrounds. We aren't like filmmakers trying to understand a culture. We just wanted to capture it and show it to the world."

Often, Couliau would have to lure Garcia away from a game, reminding him that he "couldn't be in every shot." Sometimes, he would simply put the camera on a tripod and let it roll. The two engaged in a one-on-one battle throughout the making of the documentary.

Most groups happily received the pair, but some were protective of their territory. In Brooklyn, Garcia says, they had to get permission to shoot from the local guy who runs the park.